When I was growing up and we, as a family, went to church, we were expected to sit quietly, pay attention until the sermon, write on little pieces of paper during the sermon, and then pay attention after the sermon. What really happened was this. My mom would give us each 2 "Tic Tacs" to eat (breath fresheners) before we got to church. We would then rotate accusing each other of hiding the Tic Tacs for future consumption until we got to church. Once in our seats, whoever managed to successfully store the Tic Tac without being caught would occasionally open their mouth to show the other 2 siblings their success. This was the activity before the sermon. If no one had Tic Tacs, we would try to make each other laugh (to get someone in trouble) before the sermon. After the sermon, we would imitate the minister who was trying to sing the part at the beginning of Communion. This was great fun! We had to do this without being caught - again, part of the object was to get siblings to laugh, thus getting them in trouble. The point here? We weren't paying attention, at all. We appeared to be 3 really good kids in church. My brothers might have different memories.
Fast forward to my daughter going to church. When she was a baby, we sat outside the sanctuary (the main area of the church) because if she cried, I thought I'd be too slow to get out. As she got a little bit older, we went inside the sanctuary and she would play. She was usually quiet. I'm not sure if her playing bothered people or not. Of course she wasn't participating and I remember asking the pastor of our church at that time about her inability to pay any attention. He surprised me by telling me I would be surprised, that even when playing, she was picking up things. He said his son was much the same way but in second grade, the pastor realized that his son (who is now an adult), had learned, by heart, all the parts of the service. So I went with this. He was right.
By kindergarten, my daughter wanted to take Communion. We talked about it. She knew surprisingly more than I would have guessed, so she started taking Communion. And she kept playing. At random points she would ask questions about the sermon, or about how the service went. At some point, she wanted to follow along with the service. Then she would go back to playing. Via playing and awesome Sunday School teachers, she just may know more about christianity than I do.
At one point she announced she would like a part in the service, because the older kids had a part, but the younger kids didn't. A little while after that, younger kids started saying the very ending line to the service into the microphone. She had a part. She kept playing. Someone informed me that since she was taking Communion, she should really be following that part of the service. Kids don't need bulletins to follow. She was playing and listening. She has all the parts of Communion memorized. She learned them while playing.
Really recently, she asked to be an acolyte. And amazingly, she got her wish. She's pretty bold, and doesn't hesitate to ask for things. Her friends joined her and were trained to be acolytes. They're between second and fourth grades. They had been playing. Now they are acolytes. When I started telling my daughter to pay attention to what she needed to do when she got training, she informed me that she already knew. In fact, she informed me she had picked the robe and cross she would wear! She had already asked the pastor what was behind the altar and he had showed her. When I asked if she knew what things she was to do, she rattled them off - she knew more about being an acolyte than me. "Mom, I've been watching them (other acolytes) for awhile now."
So imagine that! Everyone assumed she and her friends have not been paying attention and have instead been playing. In reality, she's been playing and absorbing. She knew what the acolytes do.
Now, if only these kids would be quiet and pay attention in church! And while they are at it, could they follow the church service like we used to do? I mean (sarcasm coming), then they could work on getting each other to laugh, and maybe they could find some distraction like Tic Tacs. And then, as a bonus, they would be so distracted in getting each other to laugh, that they would learn much less about the service than if we let them play. Excellent! Not!!
In between services, my daughter is very comfortable with the church. I can't chase her everywhere. I know she has probably done more running and yelling than she should. But then again, she and her friends are comfortable in the church. It's home to them, or a second home. They have each other and are good friends. My daughter will be a serious acolyte and then change clothes and play with her friends. I really wish I had that when I was a kid, but I didn't. If only these kids weren't running around the church and also seeing what is behind the altar, then they would be good. They could stay with their parents after the service like we did, go to coffee hour, stay close to their parents, not talk to any kids or build any relationships. Excellent! Not!!
In church, we talk about people who leave in their 20s. We talk about parents who do not necessarily come back. What if these parents who do not come back, knew there is a place for them as well as for their kids? What if parents knew their kids could play in church, and in playing, their kids would also be learning? What if parents knew that church could feel like home to their kids, that their kids, because church is home, could build confidence that cannot be built the same way in other places? It's so true.
Recently I was talking with someone who has been to our church 3 times this year, and I asked the person about kids, how things are different now, how kids are playing, how perhaps kids now make noise. His answer surprised me. His observation was that that the adults made much more noise than the kids. "When I go into church, I want it to be quiet. But there are all these adults before the service starts, making a bunch of noise. The kids? I don't even notice them. Sure, there's a bit of noise during the service. But it's nothing compared to the adults."
Children and church. If we want to continue to see families come to church, especially young families with young children, we have to be accepting. We have to know that in playing, there is learning. We can't judge their behavior, because in it, there is learning. We have to have church be one of the only places where children can still feel safe.
In my mind, I think God wants children learning, involved, and feeling safe. I very much doubt God cares how the children have all this happening. And I think God wants people to support this.
So if you do go to church, listen for those young voices. They are beautiful. They are learning.